Curriculum Innovation

Embedding Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences: Integrating Quantitative Approaches within Substantive Modules

In collaboration with the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) and the Cardiff School of Social Sciences and Plymouth University, funded by the ESRC under Curriculum Innovation (Cardiff CI ES/J011843/1)

The project aims to investigate how quantitative methods (QM) can be embedded into substantive subject modules at undergraduate level in the Social Sciences. The key aims are to:

  • develop a collaborative approach between Cardiff University and the University of Plymouth
  • create one module at each institution which embeds QM in a substantive area
  • run a quasi-experiment in which a group of students at each institution study the embedded module at stage 2
  • compare and contrast knowledge of and attitudes towards QM after the learning experience with students who did not take the embedded module
  • evaluate the impact of ‘embedding’ on student knowledge and attitudes towards QM
  • use ethnographic research to explore how students learn QM

The project will be conducted in Social Science schools at two universities, Cardiff and Plymouth. The thematic area, equality and diversity, has been chosen on the basis of its widespread relevance to Social Science programmes and because equality and diversity issues are central to the curriculum in both universities.

The students at each University will select their programme of study according to the existing approved list of modules. However, each institution will offer an adapted module in which quantitative methods will be embedded within existing teaching by the addition of materials available through this thematic ‘package’.

The ‘adapted’ modules will not be explicitly identified as ‘quantitative modules’, thus we anticipate that students will enrol on these modules on the basis of their substantive interest rather than attitudes towards research methods. We acknowledge that this is not a formal experiment due to the difficulties in creating adequate controls and randomisation, therefore we are utilising a quasi-experimental methodology (Campbell and Russo 1999: 77-97) in which students will be surveyed before and after the learning experience drawing on the action research tradition of educational intervention.

Whilst we will compare students who studied the ‘embedded module’ with those who will not, we will also study the interaction (if any) between groups (more detail is given in the ‘Evaluation’ section below). Students will be informed that they are partaking in a trial of a redesigned module, but explicit reference will not be made to the increased focus on quantitative methods. Students will be able to see the content of the new module before choosing to take it which may result in a selection effect, however we will be able to control for this using the data from the pre-module questionnaire.

All students will continue to take the generic second year modules, which are similar in each University and include a core ‘non-embedded’ generic research methods module.

Learning Objectives
Implicit in the thematic areas would be the different research design, methods and analysis and where appropriate this will incorporate the use of new technologies. We want to create a generic approach to the statistical data, drawing upon online services such as NESTAR, and to use file formats which can be utilised widely such as EXCEL and .csv. This will ensure accessibility for users who do not have access to programs such as SPSS, STATA or R. In summary, through embedding QM we want students to develop as critical researchers along the following four stages:

1)   As a consumer of research
2)   As an evaluator of research
3)   As an analyst of research
4)   As a producer of research

To achieve this we have designed the following learning outcomes. Students should be able to:

  • evaluate statistical significance of results and the relationship to sample sizes;
  • understand the links between theory, evidence and evaluation;
  • identify and utilise secondary data sources and evaluate their usefulness;
  • understand the gaps in secondary data and identify the need for primary research;
  • understand and apply different research designs;
  • understand the methodological basis of those designs;
  • develop statistical analysis skills appropriate for the level of study;
  • develop appropriate written and verbal communication skills for quantitative methods;

The project will be evaluated in several ways. A more formal experimental approach is precluded through the difficulties of randomisation of participants in the ‘embedded’ modules. However, we will survey both students taking the modules and a sample of those not prior to commencement and at the end of the project to assess their quantitative skills. All students will also be asked about their attitudes towards quantitative methods – the same questions will be asked at the beginning and end of the year allowing us to compare any changes in attitudes for students who studied the ‘embedded modules’ with those who did not.

The data collection instrument is yet to be designed but it will examine whether the embedded module has aided development of the research skills discussed above. It will also offer us an indication as to how far students have progressed from research consumer, to evaluator, to analyst, to producer – with the final stage likely to be evident only in stage 3 (dissertations). We will also have to consider whether QM ability manifests as ‘tacit knowledge’ (Collins 2010) and the implications for data collection.

Secondly, we have data available on student satisfaction for all modules taken, which can be compared after the project has been implemented. In addition, the content of final year dissertations will be monitored after the project with particular attention paid towards whether students are using quantitative approaches, research designs or data. This information can be cross-referenced with whether individual students participated in the ‘embedded modules’ and may indicate a significant longitudinal effect as a result of the intervention.

Finally, we propose to conduct a parallel qualitative study, at both sites, involving ethnographic observations of the teaching and learning process in the modules and in particular student engagement with the materials. Effectively we are ‘shadowing’ the educational journey of students throughout the project, allowing us to record not simply whether the initiative worked but how students experienced it.

A series of focus groups will also be conducted throughout the year to compliment the ethnographic observations. Thus, even if participation in the ‘embedded module’ does not have a significant effect on student attitudes towards and knowledge of quantitative research methods, we will know why this is the case and still be able to explore the problematic issues.

As the project develops a relevant brief will be designed for this parallel phase and a Research Associate (funded by both institutions) will be tasked with this – drawing on Cardiff’s strength in ethnographic research.